Investigating Moral Claims: Intuitionism, Emotivism, and Naturalism
By Josh Peete
Philosophers in the 1900ís examined moral claims through the ethical theories of intuitionism, emotivism, and naturalism. These theories attempt to explain the meaning behind claims such as right, ought, and good. G.E. Moore, W.D. Ross, and H.A. Prichard, three prominent intuitionists, introduce the idea that moral claims have simple properties that cannot be defined. Even though these claims are indefinable, everyone knows what these moral claim means through an unexplainable sense. A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson, who are emotivists, explain moral claims as action guiding, which are used to convey attitudes. Naturalists, such as Hume, believe that moral rightness can be explained through natural properties and observations. Intuitionism and emotivism both differ and agree on philosophical views, yet both will argue against naturalistic claims.
Digging deeper into the intuitionist claim, we must understand that their theory is solely based on inklings. Moral terms have properties that cannot be explained through words yet we instinctively know what these properties are. If a person does not understand or recognize these properties, they are then thought of as defective. Prichard discusses the moral claim, "ought," by arguing that no definition can be put on this term but it is easy to recognize itís properties. "An "ought" if it is to be derived at all, can only be derived from another "ought." (Prichard 39) He uses the example of Utilitarianism; good acts are those that maximize overall happiness, to explain, "ought". Say there is a homeless man on the street and I walk by him with a bag full of groceries. I could act in two different ways in this situation. I could walk by and not give the homeless man food or I could offer him something to eat. The homeless man would value the food so much more than I would so this decision would maximize overall happiness. By saying the morally good decision is to give food to the homeless man, then I "ought" to give the homeless man food. This "ought" is directly connected to an obligation to act on what is good. Therefore, according to Prichard, an "ought" can only be the consequence of another "ought." Everyone can recognize when they "ought" to do an action, yet we are unable to define "ought" because the word "ought" would be in the definition.
Moore has the same type of problem with the moral claim "good." He states, "If I am asked "What is good?" my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked "How is good to be defined?" my answer is that it cannot be defined."(Moore 15) Good is a simple indefinable property that everyone knows the meaning to. Yet, even though we know the meaning, we are unable to define this moral claim. Moore uses the example of describing a color to illustrate how good can be a simple indefinable property. When looking at something blue, we can see that it has the properties of being blue. An object may be dark blue, light blue or green blue but we cannot describe what blue actually is without relating it to another color. We just know to call this shade of color blue from its properties. Good works in the same way, according to Mooreís version of intuitionism. If a person says, "that hamburger was good," we automatically know some of the properties of the hamburger. We know that the hamburger was juicy, thick, and not burned when cooked. Yet juicy, think, and not burned is not the definition of good. This idea is Mooreís open-ended question. We can name properties of good, like how we can name properties of a color, but to put those properties as the definition of good would not be the correct description of the claim. Since we cannot accurately describe the simple properties of good in a definition and we know what good is without using a definition, Moore leaves the argument saying that good is good.
The emotivists take a different stand on how moral claims should be thought of. Those who believe in this theory describe moral claims as action guiding and are used to convey attitudes. A. J. Ayer states that, "ethical terms do not serve only to express feelings. They are calculated also to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action." (Ayer 112) When a moral claim is made, the claim should not be broken down into defining the specifics of whatís said. If Mr. T tells Mr. X, "donít cheat on your wife," this shows Mr. Tís moral disapproval of Mr. Xís actions. By disapproving of this immoral act, Mr. T uses his claim to persuade Mr. X to not cheat on his wife. The attitude coming across is shame, which is communicated through the moral disapproval of an action. As seen through this analysis, the emotivist view is quite different from the claims made by intuitionists.
The emotivists and intuitionists have varying viewpoints on moral claims but they agree to disagree with naturalist views. To discuss how these two philosophies combat naturalism we must first know what naturalism is. The philosopher, David Hume, was a predominant naturalist of the 1700s. "He concluded that there can be no knowledge of anything beyond experience," (Britannica) which goes against everything both the emotivists and intuitionists believe to be true. Naturalism says that moral claims must be seen through observation if they are deemed to be true. So, for moral claims to be right or good, they must be observed.
The intuitionist, G.E. Moore, combats naturalism with the naturalistic fallacy. "My objections to Naturalism are then, in the first place, that it offers no reason at all, far less any valid reason, for any ethical principle whatever; and in this it already fails to satisfy the requirements of Ethics, as a scientific study."(Moore 23) The reason Moore makes this claim is because Naturalist views disagree with the definition of words. They try to define moral claims into a nice definition through observing what each moral claim does to people and their behavior. These views go against the study of ethics because whenever someone defines "good" they are unable to come up with the correct definition. So Naturalists are settling for a false definition of moral claims and accepting them as being true. Naturalistic views do not allow for the study of ethics to even take place and so the intuitionist view will argue against defining moral views through observation.